2007-03-22 / Front Page
A tale of tragedy, torture and survival
his recurring 'luck' in surviving the Holocaust
BY JESSICA SMITH
With his deep tan and beaming smile, along with a face that belies his 80 years, Murray Goldfinger looks like someone who has lived the good life.
Though he endured the tragic loss of most of his family and narrowly survived the atrocities of the Holocaust himself, the Monroe resident's unflinchingly positive attitude has been a constant.
"God was always good to me," Goldfinger said. "I was lucky."
Throughout the retelling of tribulations that still wake him from sleep shaking, Goldfinger repeatedly came back to how lucky he was through it all.
Goldfinger spent the first part of his childhood in a small town near Krakow, Poland, living with his parents and eight brothers and sisters. He recalled the day his innocent childhood was torn away with vivid detail.
"We were thrown out from the town when the Germans came in," Goldfinger said. "I was walking to school, and I saw the German tanks, the trucks, coming. I'd never seen anything like this."
When he ran home to tell his mother the news, she cried, knowing to some extent, what was in store.
The family had to leave everything behind and relocate to one of several specified areas. Citing luck, Goldfinger recounted how a non-Jewish former schoolmate of his mother's happened to live in the area, and allowed them to stay in the small bungalow behind his house at no charge. Goldfinger never forgot the man, and sent him gifts and money over the years to thank him.
Though he was the second youngest of his siblings, Goldfinger risked his life to help provide for the family. Once a week, he would make the long trek back to his hometown through the mountains, where he was much less likely to be spotted by the Nazis. If caught, young Goldfinger would have been shot dead on the spot.
Early on a Sunday morning in 1942, Goldfinger, 15, and his 17-year-old brother were taken from their new home. Goldfinger was taken to Roznov camp, where 200 boys were brought to work on a dam, and his brother went to a nearby camp. The foreman took a liking to Goldfinger, making him his personal messenger. Goldfinger likened the foreman to Oskar Schindler, who saved over 1,000 Jews, and later became the topic of Steven Spielberg's film "Schindler's List."
The rest of his family had not been as lucky. While two of his brothers survived, working in the camps, tragedy struck the remainder of them.
Every Jew in the county was evacuated to a ghetto of abhorrent conditions, he said. There was no water or toilets. About 35,000 people were forced into a space that could accommodate 2,000.
Goldfinger's oldest brother had been jailed for a false accusation of ripping up a dollar bill, a crime in Poland. On the day he was to be released, he was executed.
His five sisters were taken to Belzec, which unlike the others, was not a work camp. Jews who were told they were being taken to paradise were brought there by train to be killed in "showers" of fatal gas. None of them survived, and accounts say close to half a million Jews were killed there. There are few, if any, survivors of the camp.
"They were better off, because the other ones were tortured for the next four weeks," Goldfinger said.
To this day, Goldfinger visits the place where his parents were laid to rest. There is now a headstone there to commemorate them. His grandchildren have visited the site with him.
"I took my grandchildren there for one reason, so they would know their ancestors," Goldfinger said.
Perhaps one contributing factor in Goldfinger's survival was his ability to understand some of the psychological workings of the Nazis.
"I learned one thing as a youngster - if you showed fear, they enjoyed torturing you," Goldfinger said.
Many times, he steeled his face and fought back tears in an effort to be overlooked by members of the brutal regime.
A time came when Goldfinger's foreman only received permission to keep 100 of the 200 boys to work at his camp. At his brother's camp, the foreman also got to keep 100. The other 200 from the camps were to be sent to gas chambers.
The boys were told to bring all of their valuables with them, and were taken by truck to a place where trains were waiting to take people to their deaths.
"I watched the people going to the train," Goldfinger said. "You cannot imagine. When I'm talking, I see everything in front of my eyes."
About 70 people would be packed into each boxcar. A trip that should have taken only eight hours would be extended to two days or more, to torture the prisoners. There was no food, and no place to go to the bathroom. When they would arrive at the camp where they were to meet their fate, guards would herd the disoriented victims into the gas chamber "showers," telling them they needed to clean themselves up.
Goldfinger cried then, as he stood in a group that awaited certain death. His brother had been separated into another group that was taken back to the camps to continue working there. As the guard in charge of the second group of workers performed a head count, he realized he had only 95 boys. Goldfinger was one of the five chosen to go back and work. He cried tears of joy when he realized he would be spared after all.
"He said, 'Go over there, I'll let you live awhile,' " Goldfinger said. "So that was the destiny for me to live."
When winter approached, the boys at the camp were to be taken elsewhere. The barracks were not equipped for cold weather, and conditions made it impossible to continue working. The foreman at Goldfinger's camp promised his workers that he would not let any harm come to them. Saying he needed them to return to work in the spring, he was able to get permission to have them stay in a ghetto until then.
There were close to 200,000 people in the Tarnov ghetto. Conditions were brutal, and dead bodies would litter the streets and buildings on a daily basis, mostly as a result of starvation.
Again, Goldfinger was able to make the best of a bad situation. He was in contact with his brother every day, and along with several other boys, had figured out a way to sneak over a wall and out of the ghetto to sell various items for food. They were able to count on some level of protection from the Jewish police, because the chief's daughter was in love with Goldfinger's brother.
"We had it good," Goldfinger said. "We were not afraid, we had nothing to lose."
Goldfinger and his friends lived in an attic, where they were unlikely to be found. They took in a mother and her 4-year-old daughter who they found lying in the street, malnourished. Goldfinger recalled the joy of the young girl after being taken in and fed, saying she happily jumped on the mattresses while her mother rested.
There was always a special place in Goldfinger's heart for children, he said.
"The worst part of the torture is the little children," Goldfinger said.
He related a story of a child in Rapka, crying and complaining of hunger to his mother. A Nazi reached out to hand the child a candy bar, and shot him at the same time.
"For them to kill a person is like for you to blink an eye," Goldfinger said.
After four months living safely in the attic, spring arrived, and police showed up to tear away their respite. The boys hid when they heard the police coming, but revealed themselves when they heard them beating the woman who lived there with them because she would not tell their whereabouts.
Transported to yet another camp along with 150 boys and 150 girls, Goldfinger again considered himself lucky. Unlike the others, he did not have to clean up the skeletal remains of thousands of Russian prisoners of war (POWs) who had met their deaths there.
About 20,000 Russian POWs had previously been held in the camp, and many of their bodies were gathered by the gate, having wasted away or been electrocuted by wires that ran across to prevent escape. Goldfinger said they were kept there to see how long they could live without food, water or shelter.
Goldfinger's farming background proved helpful, as he was chosen to serve as a gardener for the Nazi in charge of the camp. He worked each day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the villa, living on a scant bowl of soup and piece of bread once a day.
Extreme hunger led him to eat dog biscuits left behind by the family's German shepherd in the yard.
"They were delicious," Goldfinger said.
When questioned about whether he had been eating the biscuits, Goldfinger told the truth. Because of his good work in the garden, the Nazi did not shoot him. Instead, he was given a warning that he would be shot if he did it again. He also was told that from then on, he would be given leftover food from the house. For the next five months, Goldfinger said, he had enough food for 10 people.
It was at this camp where Goldfinger came into contact with Amon Goeth, a notably barbaric commander of the labor camp in Plaszow, as well as one of the main characters of the movie "Schindler's List." He remembered seeing Goeth ride through the camp in his Mercedes-Benz, a car Goldfinger vowed never to buy. From Goeth and other commanders, he saw sadistic acts that he preferred not to be published.
Once the gardening season had passed, Goldfinger was put to work in a refinery. For committing the "crime" of using the bathroom more than once during the day, he was given 25 lashes with a whip made of hard wires.
"I counted them ... I got one extra," Goldfinger said.
The wounds eventually went away, but the experience left indelible scars.
After only a week of working in the refinery, Goldfinger and the 10 percent of the camp who remained alive were evacuated because Russians were on their way.
On a train for two-and-a-half days, 1,200 half-naked boys and 600 girls traveled through the November cold to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of all the Nazi concentration camps. Only 200 of the boys would be kept alive to work. All of the girls were to be killed.
Goldfinger tried to stand as tall and strong as possible as he stood in line, waiting to be inspected for usefulness by Dr. Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death.
"It was like a warehouse," Goldfinger said.
Mengele was in charge of supervising the selection of arriving prisoners, determining who would be kept alive, and who would be put to death. He is also known for conducting cruel medical experiments on Jewish prisoners.
When Mengele asked Goldfinger what his trade was, Goldfinger knew better than to say he was a farmer. His life was once again saved when he claimed he was a carpenter. From there, Goldfinger lined up to be tattooed by other prisoners. The number inked upon his forearm represented the number of Jews who had come before: No. 161108.
On a zero-degree day with clear skies, Goldfinger recalled seeing dark smoke cutting into the blue.
"The guy said, 'You see the smoke from the chimney? They're from your transport,' and I thought, 'They're better off than I am,' " Goldfinger said. "But then I said to myself, 'I have the willpower, and I'm going to make it.' And I did."
Goldfinger's closest scrape with death came at the next camp where he was sent to work in a coal mine. Fatalities were common there, with five to 10 people dying each day. Once again, Goldfinger was able to secure a less onerous job for himself. Working under a sympathetic young Polish boy who gave him lunch each day, Goldfinger cleaned the railroad tracks and operated the signals.
Despite Goldfinger's efforts to preserve the shovel with a cracked handle he was given to work with, it broke one day. A Nazi in charge accused him of "sabotage" and ordered him executed.
As he had so many times before, Goldfinger prayed to his mother, Giza, for protection. He was told to turn away to be executed. The bullet was fired at his head, but did not penetrate his skull.
"When he shot me, I went to the ground," Goldfinger said. "I was fully conscious, but I said [to myself], 'Don't move.' "
Thinking back, Goldfinger said he wonders if the shooter spared him on purpose. He was moved to a different area to work by a prisoner in charge, and the Nazis went unaware of his survival.
The bullet had strayed and hit Goldfinger near the shoulder, and the wound became badly infected. A doctor who was a non-Jewish prisoner treated him in a tiny hospital for the wound Goldfinger told him was work-related. Though the doctor mistreated the other Jews there, it was not the case with Goldfinger.
"He told me, 'You don't look Jewish, I'm going to save you,' " Goldfinger said.
Mengele paid regular visits to the hospital to oversee its activities. The doctor who was treating Goldfinger told Mengele he was given special orders from the coal mine to operate on his wound.
When the time came for his operation, the doctor told him he would be put to sleep, unlike other Jews, who were not given any type of anesthesia.
"I looked at him and said, 'For good?' " Goldfinger said.
The doctor kept the promise to save Goldfinger's life, and Mengele even came to check on his condition several times.
When Goldfinger had healed, it was time to be moved again because of approaching Russians from the east. About 2,000 people survived of a group that originally consisted of 40,000. Though Goldfinger had planned his escape with the help of his young Polish friend, he was unable to separate himself from the Death March.
The group trekked to Buchenwald, where Goldfinger said conditions were much better. As Americans approached, thousands of Jews were killed each day. Goldfinger was one of 200 prisoners remaining.
On April 10, 1945, at 4:45 p.m., Goldfinger and others were taken into the woods to be killed. As an American plane flew low and witnessed the barbaric acts of the Germans, Nazis sought cover from American fire among the Jews. Fearing for their own lives for once, the Nazis sent the prisoners back to camp.
"That plane saved my life," Goldfinger said.
The next day, Goldfinger was finally liberated.
He would spend the next two years living in Switzerland, before relatives in the United States located and sent for him. He would later attend school, and worked for many years in the meat business in Morristown.
He married his wife, Margaret, in 1950. At 13, she was thrown out of the prestigious Vienna Ballet by Hitler's decree.
"She was so heartbroken," Goldfinger said.
He gave Margaret's ballet slippers to his granddaughters after her death in 2002, and a letter announcing her ejection from the ballet troupe is slated to go to a museum.
The couple had three daughters: Linda Prentiss of Chester, Susie Chenen of Titusville, and Adele Black of Rockaway. Goldfinger speaks with pride of his daughters, along with his five grandchildren, all of whom he sees often.
"My daughter [Adele] gave up a tremendous job to have a job working with the Holocaust," Goldfinger said.
One of Adele's pursuits was working as an interviewer of Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg. Goldfinger said it was one of his greatest honors to have a segment of his interview chosen to be shown before 500 interviewers from around the world.
In it, he spoke about his motivation to tell his story to children at schools and other organizations.
"If one of the students learned something from it, then I'm very well-rewarded," Goldfinger said.
Over the years, Goldfinger, who lives in Monroe's Whittingham adult community, has received many honors, including being asked to speak at Piccadilly Arsenal in Morris County, and receiving a "Lifetime Achievement Award" from Middlesex County College, Edison.
Though Goldfinger's bright smile and positive attitude say he has moved beyond the horrors of his youth, he has not forgotten them. He remains active in educating people on the Holocaust, even sending a nun he became close with to "March of the Living" in May of last year.
Goldfinger explained the basis of his unwillingness to live a bitter life because of his past. In Switzerland, soon after his release, he and several other boys were taken to the top of a mountain by their teacher.
The teacher told them to look down, then asked how they felt. As expected, they all felt dizzy and uneasy. He told them that was their past. The teacher then told them to look up, and they all felt fine. That was their future, he explained. He told them that living in the past would cause them to fall and get hurt, but that they should not forget the past while looking toward the future. And that is just what Goldfinger did.